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As a trailblazing research scientist, innovative eye doctor, and fierce community advocate, Patricia Bath received a patent in 1988 for the Laserphaco Probe, a surgical tool that uses lasers to vaporize cataracts, allowing the patient’s ineffective lens to be removed and replaced.
Born in Harlem, New York on November 4, 1942, Bath excelled in reading and science at an early age, becoming editor of the Charles Evans Hughes High School’s science paper, according to the Lemelson-MIT program.
The world witnessed a preview of her genius when 16-year-old Bath was chosen to participate in the National Science Foundation’s summer program at Yeshiva University in 1959.
Making the most out of the coveted opportunity, she derived a mathematical equation for predicting cancer cell growth. From there, her creativity and love for her roots continued to swell.
In a biography of Patricia Bath published by the National Institutes of Health (NIH), she credited her inspiration for becoming a doctor to Dr. Albert Schweitzer, a man who serviced people in the African Congo suffering from leprosy.
Her ingenuity would eventually cause her to invent a device that saves countless people from blindness, and her passion for community would lead to major medical investment in the Harlem community that birthed her.
“My love of humanity and passion for helping others inspired me to become a physician,” Bath once said.
Building a legacy and breaking through the glass ceiling
After blazing through high school in two and a half years, Bath earned a bachelor’s degree in 1964 from Hunter College in NY, before eventually excelling at Howard University Medical School.
After achieving her medical degree, she interned at Harlem Hospital from 1968 to 1969 before completing a fellowship in ophthalmology at Columbia University in 1970. Yet it was her time interning in Harlem that forever shaped her legacy.
Bath observed that half the patients at Harlem Hospital’s eye clinic were blind or visually impaired, compared to very few impairments at the Columbia hospital.
“Sexism, racism, and relative poverty were the obstacles which I faced as a young girl growing up in Harlem,” Bath said in her biography. “There were no women physicians I knew of and surgery was a male-dominated profession; no high schools existed in Harlem, a predominantly Black community; additionally, Blacks were excluded from numerous medical schools and medical societies.”
A fierce advocate for community
Determined to make a difference, Bath formed a hypothesis that the disparity resulted from a lack of medical resources at Harlem Hospital.
Patricia Bath eventually proposed a new discipline, community ophthalmology, to provide primary care for underserved communities. It utilizes volunteers trained as eye workers to visit senior centers and daycare programs to test vision and screen for cataracts, glaucoma, and other threatening eye conditions. The discipline has aided in spotting eye conditions early, saving the eyesight for thousands of people.
Inspiring her colleagues to take bold action, Bath convinced her professor to operate on blind patients for free, with Bath acting as an assistant surgeon. Thanks to Bath, the first major eye at Harlem Hospital was performed in 1970.
Shattering through the glass ceiling, she became the first woman faculty member in the Department of Ophthalmology at UCLA’s Jules Stein Eye Institute in 1975.
By 1983, Bath became chair of the ophthalmology residency training program at Drew-UCLA, the first woman in the U.S. to hold such a position.
The achievement after she refused to settle for an office next to the lab animals that she was initially given.
“I didn’t say it was racist or sexist. I said it was inappropriate and succeeded in getting acceptable office space. I decided I was just going to do my work,” Bath said.
Patricia Bath gave doctors the power to restore sight
Beyond her clinical work, Bath’s advocacy expanded when she co-founded the American Institute for the Prevention of Blindness in 1977. The organization’s mission is to protect, preserve and restore the gift of sight, labeling eyesight as a basic human right.
Bath finally retired in 1993 from UCLA Medical Center and became an advocate for telemedicine, which has been widely used since the beginning of the Covid pandemic. She continued fighting for the right to healthy eyesight until her death in 2019.
Notably, Patricia Bath said her “personal best moment” occurred during a mission trip to North Africa. She was able to restore the sight of a woman who had been blind for 30 years by implanting a keratoprosthesis.
“The ability to restore sight is the ultimate reward,” she said.